Bill Zimmerman

Twelve years ago, Clark County, Wash., farmer Bill Zimmerman applied for a water right for his family’s 149-year-old operation.

Like so many other stories related to water use in the Northwest, the one about Bill Zimmerman, a farmer in Clark County, Wash., is a head-scratcher.

His farm has been using water from its well for, oh, about 149 years. That’s 17 years before Washington became a state.

For most of that time, Zimmerman obtained water informally. That was apparently OK with the powers that be in territorial times and after statehood. In southwest Washington, it rains about 42 inches a year, so irrigation is usually needed only during dry spells in the summer.

Twelve years ago, to guarantee a source of water to grow his crops of berries, corn and other vegetables, Zimmerman applied to the Washington Department of Ecology for a water right. He asked for 120 acre-feet a year for his 94 acres.

Since then, he’s been waiting. And waiting.

Which makes us wonder — if a simple water right application remains in limbo for a dozen years, how long should it take? According to the department’s Frequently Asked Questions online, “a decision on your water right application may take anywhere from months to years.”

It doesn’t say anything about decades.

No matter how you look at this case, it doesn’t add up.

The farmer is left hanging. He needs the water, which he has been using for nearly a century and a half, yet he can’t get an answer. Under a state Supreme Court ruling, he must prove that his water right will not decrease the flow of a nearby stream, Salmon Creek. That’s in spite of the fact that it is still flowing even after 149 years of farming.

You’d think that would be proof enough.

Ecology appears to have developed a case of paralysis by analysis, not telling the farmer where he stands, other than “You’re almost to the top of the pile. Anyway, you’ll be fine,” according to Zimmerman.

And other water right holders in the area wonder how this case could impact them.

It all comes down to a problem with Ecology. By taking an inordinate amount of time to issue decisions on water right applications, it is gumming up the entire process.

Ecology further muddied the water by demanding a mitigation plan that would force him to hire a hydrologist to come up with a plan to offset any water he uses by putting the same amount into the creek. One might assume that if he had that water available, he wouldn’t need the new water right.

With such laws and regulations, Ecology has tied itself into a knot. It apparently can’t say yes, and it can’t say no to the water right.

Olympia is chock-full of really smart people. They have college and graduate degrees and all sorts of resources that a lone farmer could never afford.

Our hope is that all of those smart people would be able to put their heads together and help that farmer keep doing what he and his family have been doing for 149 years.

That’s not asking too much.

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